Director: Michael Gracey
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Zendaya, Michelle Williams, Zendaya

I grew up with a deep love of musicals and have a music theater background. The Greatest Showman should be right up my alley. Lights, spectacle, jazz hands, and a winning cast should make for a great movie going experience. It was apparent from the opening number that something was amiss. It introduces us to Hugh Jackman as showman P.T. Barnum and a production under the circus big top with a rock style sound to it. We then cut to P.T. as a kid demonstrating he always had a wild imagination looking for ways to bring life to the visions in his head. Cut back to present day where he promises his wife, Charity (Williams), that he will one day provide an extravagant life for their family.

After losing his desk job due to the financial crisis, he begs the bank to give him a loan to open a one of a kind museum displaying the odd and macabre. He’s a charming guy full of positivity and hope. The money and talent comes through, and the museum opens. What’s missing is the audience. The only three tickets sold are the ones his wife bought for her and their daughters. It’s extremely disappointing for P.T., but that doesn’t stop him and proceeds to take his daughters’ advice by turning the museum into a live show full of spectacle and wonder. Audiences start pouring in, but P.T. can’t do business alone so he brings in notable theater producer Philip Carlyle (Efron) for help. It’s all razzle dazzzle and cheers until a grumbly theater critic (House of Cards’ Paul Sparks) and angry villagers want to shut down his show.

If you were looking for a hard look into the life of P.T. Barnum, you’ve come to the wrong movie. I got the impression from that opening number and the zippy exposition that the real history of Barnum was not going to be explored. If the big top is thought of as family affair, then director Michael Gracey takes that same approach in telling Barnum’s story. He’s making his directorial debut, and there’s something amateurish about the film’s execution. This isn’t a Disney movie, but it has that glossy “NBC Live Musical” type of feel and caters to a young audience the entire way. The whole movie feels insanely rushed with no scene lasting longer than three minutes. The bountiful musical numbers are short, up-tempo, and move right along. In the traditional book scenes where it’s dialogue-led, the emotions are always heightened in a melodramatic fashion. Gracey has a hard time building an emotional arc when it feels like he’s more concerned with getting through one scene to move onto the next. He’s desperately trying to keep on par with the short attention span of young moviegoers.

Being that this is a musical, I am extremely torn on the music by composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. They won the Oscar for their work on La La Land and won the Tony for Dear Evan Hansen. Their style is very evident in the extremely catchy music. My issue is that it doesn’t fit the time period at all. It’s a very pop-inspired score, which feels out of place. Moulin Rouge attempted a similar approach but used existing contemporary music rearranged from the versions we already knew and loved. The Greatest Showman has all original music. When I listen to it out of context of the movie and it’s setting, it’s quite enjoyable. There’s a scene involving Rebecca Ferguson’s character, Jenny Lind. She’s introduced as an opera diva nicknamed “The Swedish Nightingale.” When it’s time for her big aria, it’s not opera, but rather a music theater ballad. I hate to get picky, but there’s a big difference in those two styles. The production values of each number work well with “Rewrite the Stars” being the highlight with it’s aerial routine for stars Zac Efron and Zendaya.

The Greatest Showman has smart casting across the board. It makes perfect sense to have someone like Hugh Jackman as Barnum given his background in musical theater. He has the drive and spirit of Barnum even if the role itself doesn’t give him any depth to work with compared to other musicals he’s done like The Boy from Oz, Les Miserables or Oklahoma. Pairing with him as his wife is Michelle Williams in one of her only kid-friendly roles. She played Sally Bowles in Cabaret on Broadway a few years ago, and now she gets to flex her music theater skills. I’m so used to seeing her in heavy material, but it’s refreshing to this side of her. The film also boasts two former Disney actors with Efron and Zendaya. I have to applaud Efron for going back to his High School Musical roots. This role really suits him and is a nice change of pace from the dopey stoner comedies he’s been doing lately.

If nothing else, The Greatest Showman excels at celebrating the differences in all of us. The film’s main anthem “This is Me” is a show stopping, crowd-pleasing example of this. If parents take their kids, it will no doubt be an entertaining musical that runs less than two hours. If it does well, I could easily see this performed by high school productions in the upcoming years. Maybe I went in with higher expectations, but I think there’s more to this story than what is explored on the surface level.

Is It Worth Your Trip to the Movies? I’d skip the movie and just listen to the soundtrack.


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